While music covers are the main way to remake a song, the translation from song to film or TV is rare. Songs are typically short, covering a brief moment in time. However, some songs have been adapted. These songs usually have a narrative that can be expanded on to fill the time of a film.
This time out, though, Lost in Translation will look at the movie Convoy, adapted from the song written by Bill Fries and Chip Davis and performed by Fries as CW McCall. When “Convoy” hit the airwaves in 1975, citizen’s band, or CB, radio was becoming popular. Long-distance truckers adopted the technology, giving them the ability to talk to someone while on the road, giving each other tips and warnings along the way. For someone driving across country alone, CB radio provided a connection to others, much like social media today does. Also like today’s social media, CB radio had its own jargon and codes. The song “Convoy” uses the lingo, giving a trucking feel.
The song itself is about a convoy of long-haul trucks led by the narrator, Rubber Duck, crossing the country, LA to New York, while police try to stop them. The reasons aren’t given, but more trucks join up as the convoy crosses the US. There’s some ribbing, mostly to Pig-Pen and his cargo of hogs, and one driver carrying dynamite. The police escalate, bringing in the Illinois National Guard’s tanks. There’s a conflict, not explained, but something to build on. “Convoy” peaked on Billboard’s Hot Country charts, so, naturally, someone saw a way to build off it.
The Seventies saw a move away from the traditional Western and even the spaghetti Western. Audiences were ready for something different yet the same. The “outlaw trucker” genre, best exemplified by 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, slipped into the role of the Western, though briefly, riding on country music about long-haul drivers like “Convoy”. Using the song as the basis for a movie made sense at the time.
In 1978, Convoy appeared on the silver screen, directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Kris Kristofferson as the Rubber Duck, Ali MacGraw as Melissa, Franklyn Ajaye as Spider Mike, Burt Young as Love Machine/Pig-Pen, Madge Sinclair as Widow Woman, and Earnest Borgnine as “Dirty” Lyle Wallace. The film was the second-to-last one that Peckinpah would direct.
The movie opens in the Arizona desert with the Rubber Duck in his Mack hauling a tank trailer being baited by Melissa in a Jaguar. The fun ends when a deputy sheriff pulls them both over after being run off the road by them. Melissa races off, leaving the Duck back on the road on his own. He’s soon joined by Love Machine and Spider Mike, who gives the former the new handle Pig Pen because of the load of hogs he’s hauling. Spider Mike is trying to earn money to help pay for the baby his wife about to give birth to. While they’re rolling down the highway, they hear over the CB that the road is clear of smokeys. Turns out, the news is coming from Sheriff “Dirty” Lyle Wallace, a corrupt cop who doesn’t like truckers. He manages to get $70 from each of the drivers before they move on. Turns out, there’s a history between Wallace and the Duck, one that the movie doesn’t expand on. Neither care much for the other, though the Duck is more willing to stay out of Wallace’s hair if given a chance.
At a truck stop, while the Duck is getting a birthday present from one of the waitresses (Cassie Yates), Wallace shows up to check license plates to see if any are expired or about to expire. Pig Pen and Spider Mike use the stop’s CB radio to taunt Wallace, leading to the Sheriff coming into the stop. He easily finds Spider Mike and provokes the black man into attacking. A full-on brawl breaks out as all the truckers in the stop take advantage to get some payback against the Sheriff and his deputies. One of the waitresses calls the Duck back over the radio, in time to join the fray. The result – all the truckers plus Melissa on the run, trying to make their way to the Arizona-New Mexico state line, Dirty Lyle in pursuit but delayed, and a huge mess for the truck stop owner to deal with.
As the chase continues through New Mexico, more truckers join the convoy. Melissa asks why the Duck is leading the trucks. Duck replies that he’s not leading, they’re just following. The reasons for why the other truckers are in the convoy vary. Some, like Spider Mike, are tired of the corruption and racism of the police. Others are in it because they disagree with the then-new national speed limit of 55 mph, imposed in 1974 in response to the oil embargo by OPEC nations. And some were there for the thrills and the chance to kick some ass. The only thing all the drivers in the convoy had was they wanted to keep moving, the one thing a convoy does.
The news of the convoy spreads throughout the state. The public’s reaction supports the drivers and their “cause”. The Governor, spurred by aides who see a political opportunity, provides the truckers a place to stop for the night so he can talk with the Duck. Spider Mike, though, has to leave the convoy; news arrives that his wife is about to give birth. His route, though, takes him into Texas, where black men, let alone black truckers, are not safe.
Once the convoy stops for the night, the truckers and followers take the time to shower and rest. The Governor (Seymour Cassel) finally tracks down Rubber Duck to try to make a deal. The Duck, though, is independant. He’s not the leader; his goal is to just get away from Wallace. The Governor tries to work out a deal, but news comes over the radio that Spider Mike has been arrested in Alvarez, Texas and beaten. The Duck puts Pig-Pen in charge of the negotiations, then leaves.
The next morning, the Duck is outside Alvarez, watching the town to see what the town’s Sheriff (Jorge Russek) and Wallace have planned. Pig-Pen, though, figured out what the Duck was going to do, so brought along the original truckers running from the brawl at the trick stop with him. Instead of being outnumbered, the Duck has reinforcements, and the local Sheriff bails on seeing the trucks coming into his town.
The Duck breaks Spider Mike out of jail. Wallace was expecting the Duck to come alone, as did the Duck. The final confrontation the two had been building up to had been postponed. The truckers leave Lyle in Spider Mike’s jail cell, then make the decision to run for the Mexican border. After what they did in Alvarez, there’s no way they’d be allowed to walk away. With the Duck at the front door, they put the pedal to the metal.
However, a school bus stop separates the Duck from the rest of the convoy, a stop that may have been worked out by Wallace and the local police. The Duck is alone, with only Melissa in his truck. Wallace, however, has the Texas National Guard with him, complete with anti-riot tank. He gives the order – shoot to kill. The Duck throws Melissa out of his truck and makes his last run to the bridge and into the line of fire as Wallace opens up with a heavy machine gun. Stray shots hit the Duck’s tank trailer, causing it to explode.
The movie took what could be called a novelty song and turned it serious. It was an action movie, not a comedy, and stripped away some of the romance of the long-haul trucker. There wasn’t anyone on the side of the angels, with the truckers playing fast and loose with legalities and the police just armed thugs with authority. What does happen, though, is the conflict builds to the explosive climax. The Duck and Dirty Lyle are two sides of the same coin, independant, stubborn, and neither a leader nor a follower.
The film takes liberties with the song, but with Fries and Davis on board for the music, the lyrics could be changed for the purposes of the movie. The original song had an unexplained conflict; Convoy takes the cops versus truckers theme and gives the conflict a flashpoint and a resolution. While the movie may appear to have the Duck die at the bears’ hands, he does have one last trick to pull to come out ahead.
Convoy could have gone the novelty route; with a lighter hand it would have been a comedy. Peckinpah manages to work in some social commentary and provides a harder look at the life of long-haul truckers, removing the romance much like later Westerns did for that genre. It’s an odd combination, but the movie does build on the song. The truckers are flouting the law, the cops are overreacting, and a tank does show up.
Songs may not always provide much to build on, but with “Convoy”, there’s enough story to expand into a feature film. Convoy takes the song and gives it life and background.